Where A Love Is Art

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In 1971 I was living in a share house in Spring Street, Freemans Bay, Auckland when I found out that my girlfriend had been coerced into resuming an affair with an older man which had begun a couple of years before in England. I moved out—perhaps a mistake but at the time it felt necessary. I didn’t go far, just a few blocks up the hill to an old string factory in England Street where my girlfriend’s older sister lived with her boyfriend, Barry Linton. I had a wonderful room there, at the top of the building, which you reached by climbing some stone stairs, with views out over the harbour and the city. I felt as if I had arrived at some critical juncture of independence and grace. Maybe the place was a squat, I can’t recall. There was no kitchen but Jess and Barry had a small plug-in electrical stove, an electric jug and there was running water, a basin, toilet and so forth.

Barry used to wear homemade coloured cotton pants then, and T shirts with his own designs upon them. Sandals on his feet. There was always music playing on the stereo. The Doors. Jimi Hendrix. The Rolling Stones. Joni Mitchell. The Who. I remember Jess telling me about the Hendrix track, ‘Belly Button Window’, from the album The Cry of Love: Well I’m up here in this womb / I’m lookin’ all around hmm mm mm / Well I’m lookin’ out my belly button window; and I almost remember a drawing Barry made of that situation. Young Jimi, inside his mum’s tummy, wondering if it’s safe to come out into a world of frowns. They were both kind to me without ever making it feel like I was beholden to them or a drag or anything like that. Unfortunately the String Factory didn’t last, the owner, who was a little old eastern European man, came in one morning and said: People sleeping in pairs on the floor! and evicted us. I went further up the hill to live in Piers Ardley’s house in Wood Street; but that’s another story.

In those days Barry’s drawings used to appear in the infrequent avant-garde literary magazine Freed (five issues, 1969-1972). They were gnomic, philosophically astute, amusing. I remember one that went Bye and bye they came upon a huge forest; but the forest was typographical, a F O R E S T. Barry had a light touch, even when he was being philosophical, with an eye to the absurdities of any situation and also a kind of idealism that was characteristic of those times but soon became deeply unfashionable; yet he was one of those rare people who was able to maintain his beliefs in the simple verities the hippies and the freaks at their best did promulgate and even tried to live by.

I re-encountered Barry a few years later when, at the end of 1977, Red Mole re-located from Wellington to Auckland and he began to draw the posters for our shows, beginning with Slaughter on Cockroach Avenue at Phil Warren’s The Ace of Clubs above the old Cook Street Market in November. Barry at this time also did the Red Mole logo, a mole with a cloth cap and wrap-around shades, a scarf, dancing inside a red circle that resembled, and was meant to resemble, the ring around the A in the Anarchist symbol. The next show we did in Auckland, Pacific Nights, was named after a T shirt Barry made and wore; he also wrote the lyrics and the music for the title song, which The Country Flyers played: Pacific nites, Pacific nites / I don’t want to cry / I don’t want to fight / Identify, everything is alright / Pacific nites, Pacific nites. Barry was a full blown reggae fan by then with a great collection of sides.

When the Moles went off to New York via Mexico in mid-1978, the band, calling itself Red Alert aka The Red Mole Orch., stuck around for a while longer doing gigs about town and Barry did our posters too. Both Red Alert and Red Mole posters he made were plastered over the walls of San Francisco and New York and London and many other cities in between: especially his Goin’ to Djibouti poster. Red Mole called their first show in the Big Apple by that name purely because they wanted to re-use Barry’s poster from their last show in NZ. In other words, they wrote the NY show, to some extent, around that poster. Barry was important to the theatre they made, particularly in the late seventies and early eighties and even into the nineties. All of those posters remain classics of their kind.

We came back to Auckland a couple of years later, split from the Moles and put another band together: Barry did the Coup d’Etat posters. We were living in Hackett Street in St Mary’s Bay and when you walked up St Mary’s Bay Road to Three Lamps in Ponsonby, halfway along you passed by a small two storey building which had been a corner shop; Barry lived upstairs. There was always music skanking out the windows, either from the stereo or else Barry playing his own guitar. If you called in, you would be offered a joint and a cup of tea and the chance to look at what he was drawing that day. I remember a whole series of portraits of Debbie Harry, from Blondie, he did at that time. Also a ten panel set illustrating Bob Marley’s album Kaya: one panel per song. I think that might have been a record company commission.

Halfway through 1981 I left Auckland for Sydney so I only saw Barry sporadically after that; but I had in my luggage his first comic book, Spud Takes Root; and have it still, along with a few other publications in which he is featured: for instance Hamilton Hometown, the 180th issue of Landfall, guest edited by Alan Brunton, includes an illustrated map of Hamilton he made; and an autobiographical strip, The Mighty Waikato, he drew and wrote about growing up there as a teenager.

Barry elaborated over time a cosmology which began with the birth of the Universe and culminated in Ancient Sumer, whose dating system he used to identify the age he had reached: his death, at the age of three score and ten plus one, occurred in the year 5778. How many miles to Babylon? He also wrote and drew an epic, the first installment of which is called Lucky Aki in the New Stone Age; it is set in a semi-mythical Polynesia which could be in the future, the past or perhaps in an alternative reality. It’s in three parts, only the first of which (I think) has been published, by Pikitea Press out of Melbourne. There’s another series set in Mayan Mesoamereica which bodies forth every peacable imagination you ever had of that place and time.

He was a major artist and his archive, which may prove immense enough to include versions of all of antiquity, must be preserved; I’m sure there are people abroad in Auckland and elsewhere who know this; and hope they are able to succeed in doing that. The last time I saw Barry was earlier this year, in February. I was in Auckland looking through the Red Mole archive. He was sitting outside Café 121 on Ponsonby Road when I went there to meet a friend on a Sunday afternoon. Sam Ford and Trudi Green were playing, and Barry was sitting effectively behind the stage, though the band was inside and he, out. Someone said: If he’s smoking he sits outside, if not, he comes in. Others told me: Barry has emphysema. As we were talking I noticed a couple of half-smoked tailor-made cigarettes in the ash tray in front of him; and that he had a packet of tobacco and some papers. It’s not possible that he did not know what he was doing.

We talked about the fate of his archive. You’re an educated man, he said. What do you think I should do? Where should it go? I mentioned Special Collections at the University of Auckland library, where the Red Mole papers are; or else the Turnbull Library in Wellington. Maybe I should have said the Auckland City Art Gallery as well. What he did or did not do I do not know. He was still there when I left the gig an hour or so later; talking to Rob Lomas: another old friend from long ago. The whole of the Ponsonby scene, which I’d left precipitately and for no good reason nearly forty years before, seemed to be there, intact and functioning, that afternoon. Barry Linton was central to it, a lynch pin.

In amongst the things I found in the Red Mole archive were several original drawings, including this one: Mona Magnet, who reappears in various strips over the years. B’long along long time . . .

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